Thursday, December 6, 2007

I hate agreeing with Chomsky

Check here for an interview circling the 'net with Noam Chomsky in which he discusses Ron Paul. The interview may not be authentic (I couldn't find an original link.) It sounds like Chomsky to me, though, so I'm going to assume it's genuine until someone proves otherwise.

Besides, it's more interesting to assume the words are Chomsky's, even if it disturbs me to find myself in some agreement with them.

First, I think Chomsky's wrong on the Constitution (he suggests the "individual" reading of the 2nd Amendment is a distortion, etc.) But I agree with him in at least two places.

Chomsky responds to Ron Paul's vehement support for property rights and contracts.

Suppose someone facing starvation accepts a contract with General Electric that requires him to work 12 hours a day locked into a factory with no health-safety regulations, no security, no benefits, etc. And the person accepts it because the alternative is that his children will starve. Fortunately, that form of savagery was overcome by democratic politics long ago.
You know what? Chomsky has a point here: the relationship between individual liberty and private property is strictly contingent. A regime where private property and contracts are always respected will not necessarily be freer (for individuals) than a regime where they are sometimes not respected so that other social goals can be achieved.

As a matter of fact, I think protection of private property has lots of good effects, most of which government could not duplicate even if civil servants were as virtuously motivated as some left wing people seem to think they are. But it is simply not necessarily true that "more private property = more freedom." Taking a few bucks from a billionaire to provide education for poor children enhances the autonomy of those children and limits the freedom of the billionaire only a little.

(Here, some may think I've moved into a utilitarianism of rights. Not so. Or, at least, not with respect to most rights. Property rights are not like most rights; "they can be infringed without being abridged.")

Chomsky also responds to Ron Paul's "non-interventionist" foreign policy.
He is proposing a form of ultranationalism, in which we are concerned solely with our preserving our own wealth and extraordinary advantages, getting out of the UN, rejecting any international prosecution of US criminals (for aggressive war, for example), etc. Apart from being next to meaningless, the idea is morally unacceptable, in my view.
I think I agree with Chomsky here, too. A principled policy of absolute non-interventionism is actually a morally dubious idea, as much as when it is applied to big groups of individuals (states) as it is to the individuals themselves. Consider the individualist version of a policy of non-intervention: I won't spend a jot of my money or my time to help you, no matter what happens to you. It's a complete denial of any idea of common moral community.

Libertarians I know tend to think that all our moral obligations to others are strictly reciprocal: I don't have to do anything for you unless I've made a promise, voluntarily accepted a benefit, etc. This is an impoverished -- and, I think, ultimately implausible -- view of what we owe to others.

What does all of the above mean for politics? I don't know that much about Chomsky's political views, but if he is like most on the left he probably hasn't acknowledged the limits public choice economics places on political policy. Thus, even if I think we do have some kind of ground-level obligation to help those in need, I tend to think that it would be a moral disaster for governments to try to enforce that obligation.

When governments involved, things tend to get screwed up in predictable ways. A government that took it on itself to try to enforce the kind of general obligation I have in mind would quickly wind up using its power for all kinds of immoral (or at least amoral) goals and policies.

Indeed: the more general our obligations to others are, the less involved government should be with forcing us to uphold those obligations. But this doesn't mean government should never do anything at all, especially when the government is not going to go away just because some of us want it to do so.

We should use the government, for whatever it is worth.

1 comment:

P. M. Jaworski said...

Good post. I'm mostly on side with Chomsky on some of these things too (especially ultranationalism).

But the property rights story is a bit curious. I agree that, morally, we ought to limit property, especially given its contingent nature (which I will make plain in my dissertation, probably to the lament of some of my committee members). But I worry about the politics.

I've come up with what I think is a really clever way to capture something that too many people blow past: the Ought/State gap (maybe you can come up with a cleverer description?). This gap is the gap between a moral justification of some action, x, and the institutionalization of that moral requirement in some particular institution.

The government is just one possible vehicle for realizing some moral obligation or requirement. But that vehicle may have certain problems of its own that, in the real world, make it the case that, all-in, it's best not to use it.

This is what I believe about property rights. We should be pretty much absolute about property rights, not for moral reasons, or because it is some sort of moral requirement, but because politicians will curtail it for bad reasons (often enough to outweigh the good reasons), or because they will screw things up, as they always do.

In the real world, I'm anti eminent domain, and anti takings, but only for practical, not moral, reasons.